Additive manufacturing: resource-saving and flexible


Robotic process automation has for some time assisted in the field of additive manufacturing. But such are the benefits being attributed to robotics – such as repeatability, accuracy and consistency – automated additive manufacturing as a process is quickly emerging as a disruptive technology. As such, it is significantly altering the way that industries such as construction and shipbuilding manufacture products, as robotics specialist KUKA explains.

Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, produces three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file utilising additive processes. This includes the repeated application of layers of composite material to form solid state products. There are several benefits to the adoption of additive manufacturing processes. Aside from product integrity, the most significant is affordability – 3D printing enables manufacturers to produce complex shapes using less material than traditional manufacturing methods.

Additive manufacturing as a flexible production process is faster, more economical and can be undertaken using several different materials according to the structural and aesthetic demands of the end product. In manufacturing using plastic composites, the 3D printing process is free of any retooling or mould changes. The manufacturing process itself is also quicker. If we consider 3D printing using concrete as an example within the construction industry, increased design flexibility and zero material waste considerations are satisfied. Intensive labour is also significantly reduced, so health and safety considerations are met.

Aside from the conventional, additive manufacturing can also be utilised to satisfy creativity within areas such as architecture, with projects being realised through automated robotic means. One great example is the world’s largest concrete 3D printed pedestrian bridge, installed in the Wisdom Bay Industrial Park, Baoshan District, Shanghai, which was developed by Professor Xu Weiguo from Tsinghua University (School of Architecture) and Zoina Land Joint Research Center for Digital Architecture.

The bridge measures 26.3m in length and is 3.6m wide, and its structure is inspired by the ancient Anji Bridge in Zhaoxian, China. Adopting a single arch structure to bear the load, the distance between the abutments is 14.4m. Before being produced, a 1:4 scale physical model was constructed, and structure failure testing was undertaken to prove construction integrity across the entire bridge.

All the concrete components of the bridge were printed in just 450 hours, using two KUKA robotic arms and an independently developed 3D printing system. Its construction costs, when compared to traditional manufacturing methods, were almost a third lower. This was mainly attributed to not using any templates or reinforcing bars within the bridge’s structure and design, which was comprised of three-dimensional solid modelled sections.

These same manufacturing principles could be realised across multiple sectors. Additive manufacturing has the capability as a process to potentially revolutionise businesses by providing an entirely new means of production, allowing designs to be realised at reduced cost with enhanced productivity, transforming existing supply chains.

A focus upon cost savings is an omnipresent consideration across several manufacturing sectors through reductions in waste, time savings and increased throughput capabilities, to name but a few. 3D printing is still quite a new concept, though we as an industry have moved on considerably since the 1980s. However, the last decade has seen an explosion in technologies and 3D printing innovations, and robotic applications are increasing in the additive manufacturing field, providing a powerful combination for numerous options in the design and production of precise, lightweight and inexpensive components from a wide range of different materials.

The possibilities are endless; new geometries can be satisfied; assemblies of parts can now be produced as one piece; post-processing of individual parts can be eliminated. As with any automated robotic process, manufacturers need to embrace the technology as a means to drive innovation, diversity and maintain a competitive advantage.


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